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Think cruise ship dining is all about feed-at-the-trough buffets and eat-every-night-at-the-same table dining rooms? Think again. There was a time when that may have been true, but those years are long, long gone, and the typical cruise ship now offers multiple restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, in some cases designed by well-known chefs.
Some lines such as Oceania Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line, in fact, have made fine dining a major focus, bringing in celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin (at Oceania) and Charlie Palmer (at Seabourn) to design menus and oversee kitchens. Cunard Line offers several restaurants by Boston chef Todd English, and luxury line Crystal has eateries by Japanese culinary star Nobu Matsuhisa.
If lots of choices (and diversity of cuisine) is your mantra, the newest ships of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian may be the best bets as they offer the most options. Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Allure of the Seas, alone has more than a dozen eateries, including a Brazilian-style steakhouse, a standard steakhouse, a Mexican cantina and restaurants serving Italian and Japanese cuisine. Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic also has a Brazilian steakhouse and a traditional steakhouse as well as a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, a sushi bar, an Asian noodle eatery and more.
In general, as one might expect, the best meals at sea are found aboard the most expensive luxury ships such as those operated by luxury lines Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Seabourn. But even the most mass-market and family-focused lines, such as Disney Cruise Line, are taking dining to new levels. The new Disney Dream, notably, has one of the most expensive and buzz-generating restaurants at sea, the adults-only, jackets-required Remy. With elaborate, multi-course menus designed by two award-winning chefs, Orlando's Scott Hunnel (of Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa) and Arnaud Lallement (of l'Assiette Champenoise near Reims, France), the fine French eatery will cost you upwards of $200 per person once food, wine and tips are factored into the bill.
Something to keep in mind when booking a ship for dining is that different lines have different policies on charging extra for restaurants. Some lines, such as Oceania, include dining at nearly every on-board eatery at no extra charge (no matter how elaborate or high end the outlet). Other lines tack on a wide range of additional charges for so-called "specialty" restaurants, although there's generally never a charge to eat in a ship's main dining rooms or Lido Deck buffet. At Celebrity Cruises, for instance, the most elaborate restaurants on any given ship (such as Murano or Qsine on the new Celebrity Silhouette) cost an extra $40 a person, while a number of other eateries range from $25 to $30 a person. A few outlets on Celebrity ships, such as the Bistro on Five creperies found on several vessels, cost just $5 per person, and dining in the main dining rooms and buffets on the line's ships are included in the base fare.